You couldn’t move for hype about Love Actually when the film opened last December. However, Andrew Lincoln, who played Mark, the man secretly in love with his best friend’s wife, in Richard Curtis’s monster box-office hit, couldn’t be doing with all that. "I’m not particularly good at all that pomp and circumstance," the actor sighs. "So when the film came out I was on Bondi Beach learning to surf. I needed time out to find out what I wanted to do and not feel so in thrall to this business.
"That’s one of the problems of being an actor. You feel constantly at other people’s beck and call. I thought, ‘wait a minute, it’s not like people don’t know who I am’. I realised I could take time out and take stock. Whatever walk of life they’re in, people need to do that from time to time."
Hang on, what do we have here? A thoughtful - and thought-provoking - actor?
We meet on the set of Whose Baby, an ITV drama that allows Lincoln to show another dimension of his acting skills. He has played a series of young, single men, but in this topical piece he is Barry, who starts out as a Jack-the-lad character, whose carefree approach to life is transformed when he finds out that a recent girlfriend had his child without telling him. Financial problems lead her to send the Child Support Agency to his door. When his father falls ill, Barry begins to sense his own mortality and decides that he wants to be involved with his daughter. However, her mother doesn’t agree.
Lincoln says: "At this time in my life I can relate to the fact that Barry lives a bachelor type of existence and I can draw on that. I relate to all my characters because ultimately you do have to find some recognition or some part of you that you can draw on to play these people. Emotionally as well, I think he goes on a huge journey and I think that all of those emotions that we’ve hopefully conveyed properly and conjured up are all real emotions, real as you can possibly be under the circumstances. I relate to him to a degree. He’s not me, none of my characters are, but I’d like to think that I react truthfully in the scenarios, so obviously part of me is in these characters."
Lincoln speaks animatedly about the role, which is timely, given Bob Geldof’s series earlier this month on the way fathers are treated in the UK and the protesters who brought their views on fathers’ rights to Buckingham Palace.
A vibrant presence, Lincoln has bright eyes that can only be described as twinkly. He also possesses a lively sense of humour. It is easy to see why his natural good looks have had viewers - of both sexes - swooning over the years. Yet he has never been bothered by the ardour of the fan mail he has received.
"Loads of my mates are gay and you’d have to be Neanderthal to get all funny about it," he says. The only time he was thrown was when a fan wrote a letter asking for an item from Lincoln’s underwear drawer. "It said, ‘Ooh, I like your legs’. It was a bit stalker-esque, so I binned it."
It’s possible that the fans’ passionate response may also have something to do with the frequency with which Lincoln has taken his clothes off on screen. He appeared in the buff in his break-through role as Egg in This Life, flashed again in the Brit-flick, Gangster No 1, and was - most famously - dragged nude across the floor by a dog-lead in Channel 4’s popular and irreverent series, Teachers.
The actor has the good grace to laugh about this tendency towards on-screen naturism. "It seems to be in my contract now. Every job I do, it’s get your kit off on day one. It’s weird if you have to do it at the beginning because you haven’t built up a relationship with the crew and you have to walk on to the set naked. In Teachers, I had to do loads, but you didn’t see everything, thank God. Maybe in a classy French movie, but not on Channel 4."
In this - as in so much - Lincoln remains level-headed. He doesn’t get in a tizzy about appearing naked on television - or the rather more pressing matter of being one of the UK’s most high-profile actors.
On the back of winning performances in everything from This Life, The Woman in White and Human Traffic to Teachers, Gangster No 1, The Canterbury Tales and Love Actually, the 31-one-year-old has become an instantly recognisable face (to say nothing of being one of our most in-demand voice-over artists).
But he has no desire to become one of those actors more famous for attending the opening of an envelope than for appearing in films.
He would be the first to admit that as a wide-eyed 21-year-old fresh out of drama school, he was a keen participant in the celebrity circuit. When he and his fellow This Lifers were catapulted into the public consciousness in 1996, Lincoln recalls that "at the time we made the most of the fame game. When it came out, all of us got very excited and probably pushed it a little bit too far."
He might cringe recalling his attendance at televised shows, including ITV’s Audience with Elton John, but now Lincoln finds the prospect of appearing in the pages of Heat magazine as alluring as root-canal treatment without anaesthetic.
"I decided not to go to the premiere parties and hang out with people I don’t know. I did it - that’s why I don’t do it now. I don’t see it as part of my world and I’d prefer to be out with friends - school mates, or people from drama school - I feel calmer about that.
"There are certain bars and clubs in the West End of London where you can go to be spotted. But I don’t want to go out every day of my life and be spotted by people. If you act like a celebrity, then you get treated like one, and I don’t want to be. It must be exhausting to be a public commodity 24 hours a day."
A man who is wedded to life in London, he has the same ambivalent attitude towards Hollywood. Since the eye-watering amounts of cash generated by Love Actually, Lincoln is an officially designated hot property on the other side of the pond. Cigar-chomping LA studio bosses are door-stepping him like so many over-eager double-glazing salesmen.
But, once again, he’s not that fussed. "I keep getting sent scripts such as Miss Congeniality 2".
While Lincoln concedes that he may have to "trawl my sorry English ass around La-La Land like everyone else because the bottom has fallen out of the British film industry", he is clear that "it’s not a place I could live. I love the beach and the sunshine, but I could never uproot and move over there. I’m too close to London. That’s the reason I’d never move permanently to California," he says before adding with a wry grin: "It has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger is now the Governor there."
Lincoln now seems drawn to going behind the camera. He directed two episodes of Teachers and was rewarded for his pains with a Bafta nomination for Best Director. Not bad for a rookie.
"I’ve learnt a lot from other directors," says Lincoln, who is hoping soon to direct a television drama written by a friend. "For instance, Susanna White, who has directed me on Teachers and again in a forthcoming ITV drama Lie With Me, taught me the invaluable lesson that you have to take it one shot at a time, otherwise the whole process is just too intimidating. She also gave me some great advice: make sure you know the answer to every question - and if you don’t, make it up.
"Directing is the complete, three-dimensional, creative experience. It’s not megalomania, but I love the fact that everything captured on screen is your decision. I did science A Levels and the scientific aspect of finding the right lens appealed as well. Directing is the perfect marriage of art and science.
"It was also the first time in nine years in the business that I’d had to use my brain. As an actor, not thinking is good. For a director, the brighter an actor is, the more difficult he is to direct. Maybe that’s why directors in the past would always sing my praises."
Lincoln, whose father is a civil engineer and whose mother is a nurse, was born in Hull, before moving to Bath at the age of ten. He attended Beechen Cliff, a single-sex comprehensive where his love of acting was first ignited. He recollects that "the maths teacher got me off the rugby pitch and into auditions for Oliver! I played the Artful Dodger and our sister school was at the bottom of the hill, so rehearsals were the only time we got to meet up with the girls - that was a bonus." On leaving school, Lincoln was accepted at RADA and soon after landed the part of Egg in This Life.
The only fly in the ointment was that his agent was adamant that he had to change his name from Andrew Clutterbuck. "He told me it sounded ridiculous, like I was some Dickensian poorhouse worker," recalls the actor now known as Lincoln. "My dad was really upset and my grandad didn’t speak to me for a while."
The association with This Life, the ground-breaking BBC2 show about a group of house-sharing young lawyers whose hormones were raging out of control, has to some degree stuck with Lincoln. But unlike some of his former colleagues, he has managed to prove that there is life after This Life.
"I don’t think I’m ever going to shake that one off," he says, before joking that any future drama he might direct would inevitably be tagged as "directed by Egg from This Life".
All the same, Lincoln still clearly has very fond memories of the series. "I loved it, and it was a good show. I’m still in touch with most of them. Jack [Davenport] I’m very close to."
To underline the point, Lincoln was best man at Davenport’s wedding to the Scottish actress Michelle Gomez (from The Book Group and Green Wing). Unfortunately, Lincoln did not find it as joyous an occasion as the happy couple. "When you’re acting, you’re saying someone else’s words and you can blame them if you’re crap. But I garbled the whole thing. It was the male equivalent of childbirth."
Lincoln, who has in the past been linked to Tara Fitzgerald, his co-star in the BBC’s Woman in White, plays the cards about his personal life very close to his chest and won’t reveal if he has any plans to follow his friend up the aisle any time soon.
This Life also gave Lincoln his first feel of the critics’ lash - not an experience that he enjoyed. "I stopped reading reviews when we got torn apart in the first series of This Life," he remembers. "Everyone was saying, ‘what’s all this rubbish with a shaky camera?’ Then suddenly in the second series, we were the best actors in the world and every single paper claimed to have discovered this cult show."
In the same way, Lincoln is dismissive of those reviewers who sneered at the more treacly aspects of Love Actually. "For a lot of people, it won’t be their cup of tea, but I don’t give a damn. I’m very proud of the film. It’s magical and so refreshing to have a film that isn’t all about cynicism. At the moment, the world is in need of a bloody good cuddle. Why not have a movie that makes people tingle and has them saying when they leave the cinema, ‘what a great gift’?"
When all’s said and done, Lincoln seems happiest away from the limelight with his old friends in Bath. "I have a very solid gang there," he says. "They might say, ‘we watched Teachers. Funny, mate’. Then we all just watch the rugby and chill." He seems to be that rarity: an actor who is apparently not hung up on fame and fortune.
To test if that really is the case, I ask him one final question. Would he ever be tempted to make a film like Miss Congeniality 2, if the producers, as they say in Tinsel Town, backed up the money-truck to his front-door?
"I think Love Actually has made something like 350 million worldwide, but that really doesn’t interest me. I’m not on a percentage. As long as I keep doing interesting work, I just don’t care ..." SM
n Whose Baby is on ITV1 at 9pm this Monday.